Resurrection Mary is undoubtedly Chicagoland’s most famous ghost, hitching rides from unsuspecting commuters in the southwest suburbs for decades. Folklorists and ghost enthusiasts alike claim that Mary’s story dates back to the 1930s, when the ghost of a burgeoning Polish girl was first seen along Archer Avenue near Resurrection Cemetery. According to Kenan Heise, who would later go on to write a novel about the ghost, “she is a minor cult, a shared belief and an initiation rite for teenagers. When you learn to drive… you test the myth’s reality.”
Richard Crowe originally popularized the story in the 1970s, when he began collecting firsthand accounts and theorized that the real- life Mary had perished in a car accident in the early 1930s. “Mary supposedly was killed in a car wreck 40 years ago, and she’s been coming back and going dancing ever since,” he remarked in a May 13, 1974 article in the Chicago Tribune. Later, he elaborated that the sightings usually occurred around 1:30am.
In July 1979, the Tribune published a letter that claimed the last time the ghost of Mary had been seen was in August 1976 or ‘77, by two policemen near the gate of Resurrection Cemetery. That anonymous writer was probably referring to the most intriguing event of all related to this saga: the night that Mary left physical evidence behind.
Although most accounts of the incident vaguely refer to a “man” or “someone” at “sometime” having seen a woman in white clasping the bars of the cemetery gate, Richard Crowe revealed that the man in question was none other than Pat Homa, a Justice police officer who had responded to a trespassing call the night of August 10, 1976 and discovered two of the bars burnt and bent irregularly, with what looked like finger impressions melted into the bronze.
As crowds began to gather, the Cemetery Board tried to smooth the bars with blowtorches, which only made them more conspicuous. Finally, they removed the bars altogether and sent them off to be straightened. According to Crowe, the bars were put back in December 1978, but the discoloration remained.
Mary’s paraphysical appearance has been disputed over the years. According to Peter Gorner of the Chicago Tribune, Mary materializes as “a pretty Polish girl, about 18, with long blond hair, wearing a white dancing dress.” Michael Norman and Beth Scott more or less agreed, calling her specter a “captivating, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired girl in her late teens” who wears a “long, off-white ballgown and dancing shoes.”
According to Ursula Bielski, however, Mary “wore a beautiful white party dress and patent leather dancing shoes.” In the mind of Jo-Anne Christensen, Mary is a “breathtaking blonde with light blue eyes, dressed elegantly in a snowy white cocktail dress with matching satin dancing shoes.” In his Haunted Illinois, Troy Taylor added a “thin shawl” to her appearance.
Which of these descriptions is correct? Either these authors are taking creative license, or there is a supernatural Macy’s somewhere. However, it is not uncommon for eyewitnesses to give varying descriptions of living persons they had just seen moments ago, let alone ghosts, so there is plenty of room for speculation.
Despite these disagreements, it is generally acknowledged that Mary sightings first began in the 1930s. In 1936, a man named Jerry Palus picked up a mysterious girl at the Liberty Grove Hall and Ballroom in Brighton Park. She instructed him to drive her down Archer Avenue, and asked to be let out near Resurrection Cemetery. The young woman reportedly told him something to the effect of, “where I’m going you cannot follow,” before she disappeared through the gates. Years later, Jerry’s brother Chester would claim that a friend, and not Jerry, had been driving the car that night.
Other early sightings included the specter of Mary causing a scene as she threw herself at passing cars. Over the years, Mary would resort to materializing as an accident victim, always vanishing as the bewildered drivers got out of their cars to survey the damage. This bloody behavior either shows two ghosts at work, as Richard Crowe suggested in Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, or it shows that the ghost of Mary cannot be pigeonholed so easily as just another urban legend.
Mary’s earthly origins are as elusive as her ghost, and several historical candidates have been put forward. A commonly articulated, but just as commonly dismissed, candidate was a 21-year-old woman named Mary Bregovy, who died in a car accident while (allegedly) returning home from the O’ Henry Ballroom on March 11, 1934. Mary Bregovy died in downtown Chicago, however, nowhere near Resurrection Cemetery. Also, this Mary had short, dark or brown hair, and was buried in an orchid dress. According to Ursula Bielski, a cemetery worker had told a nearby funeral director that he had seen Bregovy’s ghost in Resurrection Cemetery during the 1950s. Apparently the two stories became enmeshed and Bregovy was henceforth regarded as Mary’s physical and historical counterpart.
Another candidate was one Mary Miskowski, who was struck by a car and killed on her way to a Halloween party sometime in the 1930s. The least likely candidate for Resurrection Mary was a 12-year-old Lithuanian girl named Anna Norkus, who took on Marija, “Mary,” as a favored middle name. She was killed in a car accident on her way to the O’ Henry Ballroom on July 20, 1927. Her existence as a ghost, according to Bielski, largely depends on a “what if” scenario that might have resulted in her body being mistakenly laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Resurrection Cemetery.
Whoever or whatever Resurrection Mary was in the past or is today, her legacy will always remain as one of the most beloved specters of Chicagoland. As long as the wind whips down Archer Avenue, writers, musicians, folklorists, ghost hunters, and surprised motorists will continue to reinvent her story for generations to come.
- Beth Scott and Michael Norman, Haunted Heartland: True Ghost Stories from the American Midwest (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985, 1992).
- Ursula Bielski, Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998).
- Jo-Anne Christensen, Ghost Stories of Illinois (Edmonton: Lone Pine, 2000).
- Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: Travel Guide to the History and Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004).
- Rachel Brooks, Chicago Ghosts (Atglen: Schiffer Books, 2008).
- Kenan Heise, Resurrection Mary: a Ghost Story (Evanston: Chicago Historical Bookworks, 1990).